Is coffee healthy? This question has left scientists and medical professionals scratching their heads for decades. Some claim it will help you live longer, others warn that it can increase the chances of certain illnesses. Pregnant women are advised against it, yet America “runs on” it. Just a few years ago it was on the World Health Organization’s list of possible carcinogens, but thanks to further research in 2016, it was removed. So what’s the story with coffee? Is it good or bad for you?
Like most truths about health –– the answer is complicated. Though coffee itself is not considered a dangerous substance, the way that we drink it –– including the size of our cup, what we add to it, and how many times a day we drink it, can either support the body or cause imbalance.
Below are some health risks and benefits associated with coffee, along with 7 simple tips to make your coffee habit a bit healthier.
What Happens To The Body When You Drink Coffee?
When you drink a cup of coffee, caffeine quickly enters your bloodstream and binds to adenosine receptors in your brain. Adenosine depresses the nervous system, which makes you feel more tired. So when caffeine binds to the receptors, it encourages the opposite effect— causing you to feel more awake.
This boost in brain activity releases adrenaline, a stress-response hormone that essentially puts your body in “flight or fight” mode. This increases blood flow, pupil dilation, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. These physical responses can cause you to feel more alert and energized –– an evolutionary adaptation that once helped us cope with high-stress situations.
Health Benefits of Coffee
Aside from the positive feelings associated with coffee, recent studies have explored a myriad of possible health benefits. It is important to note that many of these studies remain inconclusive and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, evidence suggests that a moderate level of coffee consumption is most likely safe and possibly helpful in improving certain health-related conditions. Despite what many popular articles claim, most health benefit claims still require more research to be validated.
Out of the many studies that exist, below are a few of the most commonly accepted benefits.
In 2015, a study found that coffee consumption was associated with an 8% to 15% reduction in risk of death –– suggesting coffee might lengthen lifespan. Caffeine has also been linked to improved memory, and evidence suggests that regular coffee drinkers may experience a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Type II Diabetes.
In terms of heart disease and blood pressure, coffee research produces varying results. Preliminary research suggests that drinking coffee might be linked to a lower risk of heart failure, stroke, and heart disease. If you have high blood pressure or are at risk of heart disease, you should consult with your doctor about whether or not coffee is healthy for you.
For those who suffer from migraines, some studies suggest that caffeine taken with pain relievers makes them 40% more effective in treating headaches (which is why many OTC headache medications contain caffeine).
For some, coffee can help produce a bowel movement, though most researchers aren’t entirely sure why.
Finally, coffee beans are rich in fiber and antioxidants, which may help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Health Risks of Coffee
Many factors determine the health risks associated with coffee. Although one cup per day may be fine for some, it could be damaging for others.
For instance, people with chronic acid reflux, GERD, or ulcers can experience sharp pains from the acidic nature of coffee.
Studies suggest that caffeine can worsen anxiety and panic attacks for those who are prone to them.
Pregnant women are advised to drink it in moderation, as evidence suggests it can increase chances of miscarriage and birth defects.
Those who suffer from insomnia can benefit from lowering their coffee and caffeine intake.
Modalities like Traditional Chinese Medicine associate excessive coffee drinking with dehydration and kidney imbalance. Too much caffeine, triggering “fight or flight” mode, is understood to overwork the adrenals and rob us of our jing –– an energy stored deep in our kidneys, associated with longevity.
After reading through the research, it’s important to understand that there is little conclusive evidence strongly linking coffee to any particular health benefits or risks.
If you are a regular coffee drinker, it might be helpful to drink it mindfully and pay attention to how it makes you feel. You might notice differences –– sometimes it can make you feel great (depending on what you’ve eaten or how many cups you’ve had), and other times it could make you feel jittery, anxious, or give you stomach pains. By tuning into your unique body, you can develop a keener understanding of the effect that coffee has on your health and well-being.
A Look at Coffee Around the World
Although many pesticides are reduced during the roasting process, some still remain, so if you are drinking coffee every day, organic may be a safer option.
Creamers typically contain artificial ingredients and added sweeteners. If you enjoy milk or cream in your coffee, make sure it is coming from grass-fed cows, and organic.
If you use a milk alternative, like almond, soy, or oat milk, look at the ingredients and consider a brand with the least amount of additives and sweeteners (and the most amount of ingredients you can recognize). Pure coconut milk, or homemade oat or almond milk can serve as simple, affordable alternatives.
If you typically take sugar with your coffee, consider replacing it with pure maple syrup or honey. Although maple syrup and honey are still forms of sugar, they are less processed and have a lower glycemic index. Maple syrup and honey also contain more vitamins and minerals so, in small quantities, they can actually be healthy for you.
If you have digestive issues, consider adding a dash of carminative spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove or pumpkin spice to your coffee to help ease digestion.
If you crave more, try swapping your second cup with a dark, bitter, caffeine-free tea like roasted dandelion root, roasted chicory, or a mushroom tea (available in most health stores). Prepare it as you would your normal coffee.
Take a moment to breathe in and appreciate the aroma of your coffee before you drink it. Sip it slowly, rather than chugging it down, and take deep breaths in-between.
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